Making your own mission

Anyone who has ever tried to assemble flat pack furniture will know that vague or unclear instructions can be of as little use as no instructions. Yet how many times do we receive requests from higher management to ‘Increase employee engagement’, ‘heighten brand awareness’, ‘Improve office culture’ or ‘Streamline work processes’. Indeed we may be guilty of issuing such directives. Orders such as these that do not have specific measurable outcomes, or direction as to how management wants them to be fulfilled, they are mere vague desires disguised in management jargon.


Negative Outcomes

Unfortunately, it is not often appropriate or good for one’s career to highlight these concerns to those who issued these vague objectives. but leaving them unaddressed leads to negative outcomes such as:

·      Lack of focus and motivation in individuals

·      Deterioration in office culture

·      Low morale

·      Uncoordinated or unproductive actions

·      Teams working for mutually exclusive goals

·      Loss of confidence in leadership

·      Loss of ambitious staff


These effects of unclear goal setting in an office environment can result in lost revenue and employee dissatisfaction.


Case Study

To help us understand the potential consequences of poor mission setting, and to see what a leader who finds himself in this situation can do, let’s examine the actions of Colonel Richard Westley, O.B.E., M.C., who  found himself in exactly this situation in 1995 during the genocidal war in Bosnia.

Just like the now infamous town of Srebrenica, Gorazde is small Muslim Bosniak town in the mainly Christian Serb south of Bosnia. In 1995 British Army sent a small group of troops under United Nations authority to Gorazde. Their orders were twofold:

·      Serve as the eyes and ears of future N.A.T.O./U.N. action

·      To protect the civilian populations of the designated safe areas against armed attacks and other hostile acts, through the presence of its troops and, if necessary, through the application of air power, in accordance with agreed procedure

There were no planned future actions by N.A.T.O. or the U.N. at that point and so no direction as to what information to prioritise gathering. And through the vague terminology ‘serve as the eyes and ears’, no direction as to what kind of intelligence gathering to focus on. It also did not specify what ‘other hostile acts’ included, what the ‘agreed procedure’ was or most importantly give any indication as to how the mere ‘presence’ of several hundred lightly armed peacekeepers will deter several thousand heavily armed and highly motivated Serbs. Especially considering that the ‘application of air power’ turned out to be non-existent.


Defining the Mission

However, he and his immediate superior knew the risks of not having a clear mission and decided on a simple solution; to make their own. This lead Colonel Westley and his immediate superior to devise their own, more specific objectives:

·      To prevent any Serbian encroachments into any part of the U.N. outlined Safe zone of Gorazde, with force if necessary

·      To prevent any Bosniak forays out of the U.N. safe zone of Gorazde

·      To establish a strong psychological presence to both sides by operating on both sides on the exclusion line (i.e. patrolling outside the safe zone and establishing freedom of action, showing they won’t be bullied)

·      To prevent civilian casualties as much as possible

·      To neutrally liaise between the two sides when possible

·      To update U.N. command to any developments in and around the safe zone such as troop build ups, violations of the safe zone or humanitarian emergencies

What this meant in practice was the decision to change from peace keepers to peace enforcers. By redefining their mission in this clearer and more aggressive way, adopting a  stance to actively hold the ring between the two forces come what may, and to protect civilians at any cost, it removed any doubt in the ranks as to why they were being deployed far from home somewhere they had never heard of.  It also allowed the British to establish a stronger defensive position and gave them a stronger negotiating position.

This contrasts with other UN peacekeepers in the area who:

·      Were constrained by U.N. agreed procedure in the threat of force and use of force to counter Serbian violations

·      Suffered a progressive loss of morale caused by an inability to influence events

·      Gave full initiative to the Serbian forces in the region and emboldened them

·      Undermined U.N. military credibility in the region

·      Became overly dependant on negotiation


Opposing Outcomes

Around two months after the British deployment the Serbs attempted to capture Gorazde and then Srebrenica. At Gorazde, they encountered immediate and effective resistance on the ridges around the town at the extreme edge of the exclusion zone from prepared and motivated British troops.  This gave the Bosniak soldiers of Gorazde time to move up to these ridges out of their own exclusion zone, relieve the British peacekeepers and protect the town themselves. It is important to note that Colonel Westley was aware that firstly the small U.N. force would never stop the Serbs on their own and secondly that whoever controlled the ridges around Gorazde, but between the two exclusion zones of both Serbs and Bosniaks, controlled Gorazde.  So, he called on Bosniak forces as soon as fighting began to prevent a massacre, against U.N. procedure.

However, in the proceeding months at Srebrenica, another European force had allowed the Serbs to take 30 of their soldiers hostage to use as human shields against air power, allowed them to seize several observation points around the town without resistance, and, allowed high ranking Serbian officers into the town which spread discord and did not fully enforce the exclusion zone around the town. This meant that when the Serbs chose to seize the town and murder all the males, the peacekeeping force were in no position to resist and had lost the will to do so. As unfortunate or tragic as these actions look in retrospect at each stage the UN soldiers were attempting to follow their vague orders while not overstepping them, and were being constrained by U.N. procedure. Remember they were only to protect the safe area’s ‘through the PRESENCE of its troops’, not explicitly through their actions. 


Redefining over Interpreting the Mission

Colonel Westley pursued a smaller but more defined mission while giving himself more freedom of action and was thus able to focus on and prepare for the worst eventualities. Whereas as the other force dissipated their effort on several contradictory aims meaning they achieved none of them and lost focus on the main goal of preventing ethnic cleansing. Proving that interpreting an instruction is not the same as redefining it. Interpreting a mission in your own way is a refinement of a flawed instruction and will inherit many of those original flaws, redefining a mission is a paradigm shift resulting in a completely new mental framework in which to address the problem.  

This is an extreme example but a common outcome of unclear goal setting and a heroic but simple example of how to avoid that fate. Individuals, teams, departments and companies all work better towards a clear, defined and measurable goal. So, when you receive that next aspirational contradictory pie in the sky instruction from upper management, or indeed if you are in danger of issuing it, don’t ignore it but redefine it.

Redefine in a way that’s

·      Concise,

·      Easy to understand,

·      Measurable and

·      Achievable,

So, doing a few things right is a lot better than doing many things wrong.     


Other Resources

The book itself - Positive Psychology And Change, published by Wiley.

Sarah Lewis is the owner and principal psychologist of Appreciating Change. She is author of ‘Positive Psychology at Work’ and ‘Positive Psychology for Change’ both published by Wiley. She is also the lead author of 'Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management'.

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